Senator Files Tax Credit Scholarship Bill

Triblive event with Rep. Kelly Hancock R-Ft. Worth, Rep. Ken Paxton R-McKinney, and Rep. Larry Taylor R-League City on September 6th, 2012
Triblive event with Rep. Kelly Hancock R-Ft. Worth, Rep. Ken Paxton R-McKinney, and Rep. Larry Taylor R-League City on September 6th, 2012

Controversial legislation that would provide scholarships for students to attend private schools through a business tax credit has finally found a home.

State Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, filed a bill Monday that would enact a program like the one state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst touted at a widely covered December news conference at an Austin Catholic school. At the time, Patrick, who as chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee has championed expanding school choice in the state, indicated he would carry the legislation himself.

With the Friday bill filing deadline looming, whether Patrick still intends to file a bill is unclear. A Patrick spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Despite high-profile praise for the concept — in addition to Patrick and Dewhurst, Gov. Rick Perry is also a supporter — the political will to pass such a program has not materialized. Leaders in the House, including Speaker Joe Straus and Public Education Committee Chairman Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, have expressed skepticism that such a program could pass in the lower chamber. There is also concern about what critics of the plan view as a lack of accountability it provides for taxpayer dollars.

Last week, state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, told the Rio Grande Guardian that he intended to file tax credit scholarship legislation that would make a difference for "those in need and those who are falling through the cracks."  

He said his proposal was not a voucher system, but was about "helping a category of students who have fallen on hard times, who are disadvantaged economically and who need our help to make it through the system."

But Lucio spokesman Daniel Collins told the Houston Press on Monday that the senator would not carry such a bill.

"We're not planning on a bill of that nature," he said. "We don't have a draft out, and there's no language to file."

When contacted by the Tribune, Collins said he could not comment beyond what was reported in the Houston Press.

Paxton's legislation would allow "educationally disadvantaged" students at public schools rated "unacceptable" under the state's accountability system to use the scholarships to attend any accredited nonpublic school, including religious institutions. Businesses contributing to "certified nonprofit education assistance organizations" would receive state franchise or insurance premium credits in exchange. The program would intercept the money before it hit public coffers, which would allow private schools to remain outside of regulations and accountability measures applied to the state's public schools.

A former state representative serving his first term in the Senate, Paxton sits on the upper chamber's education committee. A staunch social conservative who ran against Straus for House speaker three years ago, he is a longtime supporter of voucher programs. He filed a similar tax credit bill in 2003.

Paxton's office has not yet responded to a request for comment. 

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